Saudi Arabia | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Freedom of the Press 2008

2008 Scores

Press Status

Not Free

Press Freedom Score
(0 = best, 100 = worst)

81

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

29

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

24

The media environment in Saudi Arabia remained among the most repressive in the Arab world in 2007. The Basic Law does not provide for press freedom, and certain provisions of the law allow authorities to exercise broad powers to prevent any act that may lead to disunity or sedition. The 49 provisions of the 1963 Publishing and Printing Law govern the establishment of media outlets and the rights and responsibilities of journalists and stipulate penalties for press violations such as fines and imprisonment. According to the official media policy, the press should be a tool to educate the masses, propagate government views, and promote national unity. Avoiding criticism of the royal family, Islam, or religious authorities is an unwritten policy that is followed routinely. Media outlets in Saudi Arabia are administered by the Ministry of Culture and Information, which uses laws, decrees, and interventions by the royal family to restrict media freedom. Nevertheless, Saudi officials have allowed the media to express a moderate level of criticism of the government in recent years, and journalists continued to test the boundaries in 2007 by discussing issues previously considered off-limits.

Journalists face fines and detention upon publishing material deemed objectionable by the authorities, and threats of arrest, interrogation, job dismissal, and harassment contribute to the practice of a high level of self-censorship. The Saudi government has been known to directly censor both local and international media, confiscating print runs and shutting down newspapers temporarily or permanently. In August, the government confiscated copies of the Saudi daily Al-Hayat without providing an official explanation and shut down the paper for four days. Some news sources speculated that the seizure was related to the publishing of an article that criticized the Saudi health care system, while others associated it with an article that linked religious scholars with terrorism. All journalists must register with the Ministry of Culture and Information, and foreign journalists face visa obstacles and restrictions on freedom of movement. Elections to the governing board of the Saudi Journalists Association are heavily influenced and controlled by the ministry. Female journalists in Saudi Arabia face multiple forms of gender discrimination such as lesser pay, discouragement from working as freelancers, and limitations requiring them to report solely on topics related to women, family, and children. As a result, many female writers publish under aliases. In January, four female journalists were denied access to the men’s campus of the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University to cover a lecture by the Spanish minister of justice.

There are 10 daily newspapers in Saudi Arabia, and although all are privately owned, most owners are associated with either the government or members of the royal family. Members of the royal family also own two popular London-based dailies, Asharq al-Aswat and Al-Hayat. Broadcast media are also controlled by the government, which owns and operates all domestic television and radio stations. According to the U.S. State Department, the Saudi Investment Authority had received 30 applications for new private media outlets, but these requests were still pending at year’s end. Satellite television has become widespread despite its illegal status and is an important source of foreign news; nevertheless, much of the satellite industry is controlled by Saudi investors and is respectful of local sensibilities.

About 17 percent of Saudi residents used the internet in 2007. However, the Saudi government is one of the most restrictive censors of online material in the Arab region. According to the International Press Institute, over 400,000 websites have been blocked. King Abdul-Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST)—a government institution charged with developing and coordinating internet-related policies—is the sole gateway for Saudi internet users and manages the connections between the national and international internet, with all privately owned internet service providers linked to the main server at KACST. Through KACST, the government continues to block and filter websites deemed offensive, critical, or immoral. Updated lists of undesirable websites are continuously fed to the filters, and users attempting to access banned sites receive warnings and are told that their attempts are being recorded. E-mail and chat rooms are also reportedly monitored by the Saudi Telecommunications Company. In 2006, the Saudi government approved the first law to combat “electronic crimes,” criminalizing defamation on the internet and computer hacking. Given the restricted environment for print and broadcast media, there has been a significant rise in the number of Saudi blogs in recent years, totaling several thousand. The Saudi government has increasingly responded by blocking select blogs and harassing blog authors. On December 10, the authorities detained without charges Saudi blogger Fouad Ahmed al-Farhan, author of a popular pro-reform site. He remained in custody at year’s end.